Morgan Tsvangirai, Robert Mugabe’s most tenacious rival, has died

Morgan Tsvangirai, March 10 1952-February 14, 2018.
Morgan Tsvangirai, March 10 1952-February 14, 2018.
Image: AP Photo/Dai Kurokawa
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Morgan Tsvangirai, the man best known for opposing the rule of Robert Mugabe, has died.

Tsvangirai, 65, died on Feb. 14, a senior member of his party tweeted. Tsvangirai died in South Africa, where he was being treated for colon cancer at a hospital in Johannesburg.

Tsvangirai was the face of Zimbabwe’s opposition: a man who represented Zimbabwe’s working class who suffered most under Mugabe. While it seems his political career is marked by a series of losses to Mugabe, in reality Tsvangirai was one of the few politicians who stood up to Mugabe. As the leader of the Movement for Democratic Change, he encouraged a grassroots opposition to Mugabe and the Zanu-PF, which was often brutally repressed.

Perhaps the most instantly recognizable image of Tsvangirai are the grisly pictures of a beaten Tsvangirai were seen around the world in 2007 when police detained and beat him for organizing a protest in Harare.

The MDC emerged as the country’s economy first began to spiral and Mugabe held on tighter. Tsvangirai was a miner who rose through the ranks of Zimbabwe’s trade unions. He founded the MDC in 1999 and first ran against Mugabe in the 2002 election. He lost in a deeply flawed election process that would go on to characterize Zimbabwean democracy until Mugabe was forced out in November.

Tsvangirai tasted power briefly as part of a government of national unity, formed in a power-sharing deal after post-election violence in 2008 forced him to withdraw from an election that he all but won. Tsvangirai was forced to share Zimbabwe’s top spot as Prime Minister, while Mugabe remained president.

In 2013, comfortable in a state home, Tsvangirai seemed to have overplayed his hand. In an election that should have been his, critics blamed him for squandering the party’s popularity. In a tense climate, Tsvangirai failed to raise his concerns over election irregularities to sympathetic observers until it was too late.

In the last two years, even as his health failed, Tsvangirai was determined to run again in Zimbabwe’s 2019 election. When Mugabe finally stepped down, an ill Tsvangirai left his treatment in South Africa, readying himself for a moment he’d waited decades for. In January, he met with current president Emmerson Mnangagwa, and seemed ready to run against him for another bid at the presidency.

Despite his focus on the Zimbabwean presidency, Tsvangirai failed to maintain his authority in his own party. His party faced infighting that splintered it into weaker parties. As his health worsened, Tsvangirai’s party was already facing a succession battle.

Hours before Tsvangirai died, the party announced an extraordinary meeting to settle who would be the interim leader. Tsvangirai’s death will certainly weaken an already struggling opposition movement in Zimbabwe.